I run to the grocery store on my way home at 8:30PM. The shop is my “local,” within walking distance of my house. I pop by at least once a day. Alan is the owner. His wife works behind the deli counter. His sulky pre-teen sulks in sometimes. Once, his mom and I conned him into sharing a bite of his figolla during Easter. Much to his chagrin, I have never let the poor kid forget it. “Hey, gimme’ a bite of your figolla!” I chide every time I see him.
Once outside, I hastily park Hamallu, my steadfast scooter. Without bothering to remove my helmet, I brush past three men outside the netting-covered storefront. They are workers, their clothes splattered with white goop and their fingers stained black. They rub their hands in that way old men rub their callouses, petting their own hides. One man sits on a short ledge. Next to him are piled empty cans of Cisk Excel. The other two men stand next to him with Cisks in their hands.
This site, blue-collar men drinking at grocers after a long day, is common in Malta. It reminds me of my BASEDtraveler Plymouth days, when I watched British men stand outside bars, drinks in-hand. Maybe the Maltese penchant has something to do with British influence on the island. It’s true that there are not many bars in the area (unless you count the black-market brothel that fronts as a bar). However, I do not think the men would go to a bar even if it were there. They enjoy being curbside, paying quickly and sitting as long as they like. Perched, hands unwashed, watching the world pass by. Their colleagues ask nothing more than to banter and pass enough time for their muscles to cool. This scene repeats itself in every country: working men drinks in hand, sitting outside some no-frills establishment. Cooling down with the setting sun.
Under green netting outside the front entry, I grab a bag of crispy apples smaller than the size of my fist. According to 2010 census data, 66% of Maltese agricultural landholdings earned less than 2,000 Euros annually. Therefore, Malta ships in almost all of its fruit and veg. Sometimes the produce bears signs of defrosting. As I check the bag thoroughly for the telltale mooshy apple, the men peer at me. From inside the shop I hear raucous yelling.
That man is accosting poor Alan again, I think. Walking inside, I see the loudmouth I expected: an older Maltese fellow with a paunchy belly, salt-n-pepper hair, a sweatshirt bearing a few random words, holding a Styrofoam cup full of red wine. The nearly empty bottle next to the pastizzi hot tray. He was here sometimes late at night. Like usual, Alan tries to ignore him. Although I consider him a friend, Alan is typically Maltese in that he is not exactly the warmest character. With clean-cut hair, a hulking body, and curt words, Alan seems Mafioso. He is the one that told me about an underground gym in a garage behind the shop. He and I go to train on some Tuesday evenings after he closes. On those nights, Alan and I barely speak to each other, but we train hard for 40 minutes. The first night, courteous Alan paid for my class and tipped the instructor.
This evening the man is particularly raucous. He is loudly shouting says the same words repeatedly: “I run!”
I set my apples on the counter, glancing around. The shop packed to its miniscule hilt. It is so small that two people cannot comfortably move down one of the two aisles. The meticulously cleaned and organized space is evident despite its darkness. Buried under granola bars, the shop even has a machine for mobile top-ups, like an ATM for cell phone data. It is tempting to buy something worthless, like 30-cent yogurt or pack of roasted broad beans, but am overwhelmed by the detritus in the shop.
“That’s all, I guess,” I say to Alan, who barely nods in acknowledgement of my presence. While he sits unmoving behind the counter, his red-haired evening assistant patters nearby, organizing and cleaning. Alan weighs three times my size; she weighs 1/3 less and is much taller. We are an odd bunch at the counter: the loud drinking man; the red-haired assistant; Alan; and myself, wearing a scooter helmet and yoga clothes.
“I run!” the man repeats.
When no one replies, the man looks at me. He moves his hand lightly back and forth in front of his chest, palm up, and turns down his lips at the side. It is a gesture that Maltese people use to signify something like a sigh. The person thinks, “Oh, you know, what can we do?”
“Thirty years ago, I run!” as he says so, he starts laughing madly.
“You know how you have a ‘Hamallu’ scooter?” says Alan. “Well, I have a hamallu Uncle!”
Hamallu is a Maltese term for a person of lesser class. While it originally referenced people from “the wrong side of the tracks”—in this case, the wrong side of the island (the South), today the term references most any trashy Maltese people. Hamallu wear name brand outfits that match from head-to-toe; gold bling; have wide bellies and skinny legs; don cigarettes, sunglasses, high heels, and stiff collars. I named my scooter Hamallu because he is ghetto. He shakes a lot; has a few loose screws. He is also covered in bright stickers. One is a skeleton hand showing a downward-facing middle finger sign. This sign does not mean the same thing in Malta as it does in the States. I presume this is the reason why my sticker faces the wrong way.
Alan is totally fed up with his uncle. “I run, I run!” Uncle shouts. Over him, “2.80,” says Alan. I pour my change onto the counter, taking the opportunity to rid my bag of ubiquitous Maltese small change. With one cent, two cent, five cent, ten cent, 50 cent, 1 Euro, 2 Euro coins, my change purse is always heavy.
“I run!” states Uncle, with a red smile.
“You run, you run, we know you run!” Alan shouts back, throwing his arms up in disgust. I have to laugh: here are two generations of overweight Maltese men in the middle of a grocery store arguing about running at 8:30PM. If this guy were not Alan’s Uncle, he would be out on the corner with the workers.
As I count my change, Uncle refreshes his Styrofoam glass. When is see that the bottle is a higher-quality red, I say to Alan, “I like your Uncle! He drinks good wine!” Uncle turns to me.
“Do you know why I drink red wine?” he asks.
“Why?” I reply, genuinely curious.
“Because I try to be like Jesus!”
The workers move to the side as I exit the grocery store, helmet still on, my American-accented laughter pinging off the green netting. I am still chuckling as I strap my bag-o-apples onto Hamallu’s backseat. From inside the shop, I hear Alan yelling, “You run! You run! I know you run!”
Emily Stewart is an insatiably curious merrymaker and busy-body.
Everything on this website is Copyright © 2017 by Emily E. Stewart, Sole Trader. All rights reserved.
Special thanks to Paul K. Porter, who's pictures appear most frequently on the site, for being the best yoga retreat photographer EVER.